Saturday, October 20, 2007

Founts of Wisdom

"And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing."

That is what the exiled forest-dwelling Duke Senior in Shakespeare's As You Like It, had to say, about lessons the most ordinary of natural surroundings have to offer, if only we turn our eyes and ears to them. The Duke calls this outlook of life that sees good in everything, one of the 'sweet uses of adversity'. Human nature demands either the thrill of novelty or the promise of reward to recognize the good in anything; and we are so often dismissive or plainly unaware of the good in what is familiar and commonplace. It is only in times of loneliness and lessened accomplishment; where all our experience is confined to the commonplace; that most of us manage to see the good in things which we would have commonly taken for granted. It is only with some training that we are able to overcome this limitation of human nature; and are able to see new lessons in not only the novel, but also the familiar; not only in the inviting, but also in the innocuous; not only in hard times when we are forced to make virtues out of necessities, but also during the few vacant moments in the busiest of times. A bustling university campus is not exactly exempt from public haunt as the Duke's wilderness, and a student on his toes does not usually stand gazing at the many fountains on campus the way the Duke's retinue would have at the brooks. Fountains in this day and age, to most people mean dispensers of soft drinks. Even so, while passing by the many fountains on the way to the campus at different times of the day, I somewhat fancifully see the fountains spouting philosophies of life, somewhat like how the Duke saw books in brooks.

The first fountain I see is one at Mount St Mary's College, en route to the USC campus. The fountain here is within a small well, and on it's inner wall are engraved the words, "Seek the good, the true and the beautiful from the Fountain of all Life". The sentence at first sight seems too much of a platitude even to merit mention. Most of us will stop mid-sentence and tell ourselves that it goes without saying, that we must seek good and avoid evil. When we ask whether 'any good will come out of this', we generally mean whether any pleasant outcome, mostly reward or recognition will come out of this activity. Most of us also have strong opinions about what activities and associations any good can come out of, and hence we have our own mental models of 'good people' and mental lists of 'good books'; and societies have an idea of what 'good professions' are. This way, in our mental landscape, there are some landmark sources of good, call them fountains of good if you will. Similarly we have also mapped out the 'roots of all evil'. Are good and evil so clearly separate and disparate in origin? How often have we found good and evil arising out of the same source? The best of role models have chinks in their armour, and no person among those we may hold in the greatest contempt can be so depraved that he lacks a single virtue however buried in vice. The most memorable of experiences might have a tinge of regret over a missed opportunity to have made it still better, and the bitterest of experiences might have hidden lessons that stood us in good stead later. Good and evil are intermingled in the stream of life experiences, and do not spout from two separate fountains. There is only one Fountain of All Life, as the engraving says. The wisdom of life, it says, is not in clinging onto something as good and dismissing something else as evil, but in straining and gleaning what is good in every single thing. The mythical Indian Swan, which can drink just the pure milk out of milk diluted with water, is a vivid Oriental motif of this view. The Swan does not fly far in search of its elixir, but finds the same in a seemingly impure source. Likewise, we too will be wise not by wandering to 'good places' or waiting for 'good times', but finding good from whatever we face here and now.

A more ornate fountain is the one facing the splendid Doheny Library building. This fountain has a pedestal set upon four figurines like the caryatids of Greek antiquity. A figurine bearing an infant represents Home, one making a gesture of giving represents Community, one with praying hands represents Church and one with an open book represents School. Atop the pedestal is a dancing nymph reaching for the sky. The fountain illustrates in sculpture all the foundations for raising human society to newer heights. Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Indian nation, presented his entire nation-building program through his Ashrams which were self-sufficient in the needs of the family, community, religion and education. In his writings, he describes how the boundaries between family and community vanish, how labour in the Ashram and the words of wise ones can themselves be an education in their own right and how adherents of different faiths can engage in collective worship. The kibbutz movement in Israel is perhaps the most well-known attempt in recent history to unite home, community, church and school into a single collective institution. However, it is now almost a thing of the past since any overarching institution that tends to subsume individual talent and aspiration has eventually yielded to change. We must remember that the central tenet of even Gandhiji's seemingly collectivistic social engineering experiments was the individual volunteer's inner resolve and devotion to truth. Likewise, even as the global community today experiences greater connectivity and more collaborative activity; order will be maintained only by individual responsibility and cannot be enforced by an institution. Progress will still be driven by individual genius, however much it may be facilitated by the right institutions. Like the figurines in the fountain which set the stage for the nymph to take flight, and do not nestle the nymph in a tight embrace; the truly beneficial social institutions are those that create conditions suitable for individual achievement, without binding enterprise and imagination by convention and tradition.

Outside the majestic Mudd Hall of Philosophy, stands another fountain bearing the inscription, "O stream of life run you slow or fast, all streams reach the sea at last.". This might sound like a defeatist message to some, who may think that it is pointless to take pains to be skilful and speedy when eventually the fruits of all efforts will count to nothing. To others, this very message infuses a sense of urgency, that we must when we still can , be our most sparkling and agile selves and infuse grace however fleeting into all our movements. The message, often forgotten, is to keep in mind even when things are streaming along smoothly and speedily, that any state of affairs however desirable, lasts only for a time. Likewise times of difficulty and stagnation also pass. The wisdom of life seems to be to pay utmost attention to the course of each stream of thought and action, while at the same thing acknowledging the uncertainty of the fate of each stream as it rushes into the sea of endless possibility. This inscription, in a way, both inspires action and tempers ambition, and has a message similar to the more oft-quoted "Do your best and leave to God the rest!".

Perhaps the most prominent fountain at the northern entrance of the USC campus is the one at Gavin Herbert Plaza. This one bears no inscription and does not proclaim any philosophical message, but in its own way is proof of the fact that a gesture may be worth a thousand words. The Plaza bears an unconventional sculpture: a juxtaposition of tall blocks that seems to be a cubist expression of a human hand with an upraised finger. The popular interpretation is that this is a well-known offensive gesture aimed at a rival institute. This somewhat profane interpretation, which might even have been the intent of the artist, is however not what strikes me most about this public artwork. What is impressive is that the artist operating with such minimalistic motifs as straight-edged stone blocks manages to convey an image as intricate and distinctive as a human hand. The evocations and associations caused by this assembly of stone blocks are illustrations of how the aesthetics and acceptability of any artwork are shaped as much by the intent of the perceiver, as by that of the artist. That such an artwork, carrying an irreverent meaning for most and an abstract meaning for others, lies on a university campus is proof of the fact that the sublime and the ridiculous often coexist in proximity in the most well-meaning of human endeavours. Again it is upto us to choose either, just as we are to choose the good from the intermingled Fountain of All Life. Even those plain fountains that bear neither inscriptions nor sculptures do have a message. That the planners decided to install those fountains at all, instead of leaving the parkways unadorned, speaks of an innate human urge to look beyond bare necessities, create things of beauty and offer some comfort however fleeting to travellers one might never see. In the mild gurgling and cool whiffs around the plainest of fountains, I find reassurance, that there have been men who valued art enough, to create these spaces that can calm weary minds and occasion contemplation.

1 comment:

Vishy said...

How can you call your poetry pedestrian? Just wanted to say, THANKS A LOT for the turtle doves link. Although the price is...well.. a little high, I was glad to think that someone's reading my blogs AND thinking :D Only you could have thought of that :)
Havent gotten the chance to read your poem, but I will read it.